Favorite Books of 2020

I do not completely understand why people write their “best of 2020” lists in December. On the one hand, it’s the last month of the year and things are wrapping up. On the other hand, it’s still 2020, and what if you read something great right at the end of the year? It’s too late to include that amazing read from Christmas break if your “best things I read” list was published on December 15th!

So here are my ten favorite reads from this year, in no particular order (except for my favorite, which I’ve noted):

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Lovely writing, an interesting set-up (a man is sentenced to life imprisonment…in a fiver-star hotel), and the importance of human connection. Interesting to read about someone stuck in one place for an extended period of time, though he did have the advantage of many humans to interact with (and I have the advantage of a vaccine coming to restore interaction)!

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

I don’t read a lot of memoirs, because I’m always worried they’ll be a bit self-indulgent. But this audio version, read by the author, was highly entertaining, interesting, and horrifying without going too in-depth about life in apartheid South Africa.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

A court intrigue story…in spaaace. Interesting plot and characters, and a mystery to unravel while the protagonist raced against the clock trying to find her place in an unfamiliar world. Plus the goofy naming convention of the court (everyone’s name is a number plus a noun, for example: Nine Seagrass) was highly entertaining.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown

Challenging and eye-opening very personal look at race and the American church.

The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien

A tough year calls for some re-reads, and escaping into Middle Earth was just what I needed this summer. A classic adventure story that sets up the larger events of The Lord of the Rings and is great fun in itself. I forgot how funny Tolkien can be and a straightforward adventure is great.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. Schwab

There were parts I liked and parts I wanted to skip past, but the “girl makes a deal with the devil” premise was great and it went in directions I didn’t expect. I found the parts from Henry’s perspective were my least favorite, but I liked Addie and her clever determination to stay alive and outwit her antagonist.

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier

A twisty story about an infatuated young man, a mysterious woman, and the way unchecked speculation can really go awry. It’s not as popular as Rebecca, but I thought it was just as good.

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

A lonely man, Piranesi, is almost alone in the world—a house full of statues and strange tides. But the house provides for him, so he is cared for and loved. But he starts digging into his story a bit and finds all is not as it seems. A perfect little seashell of a book.

North & South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

A re-read, but still great. Gaskell and Jane Austen definitely have some overlap, but Gaskell is a little less witty and a little more concerned with the plight of the working-class. Still great.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

Yes, she’s on the list twice, because she’s that good. A 21st century book about English magicians written in a 19th century style. Excellent writing, magnificent world-building, sprawling storyline, great characters, amazing footnotes. It’s nice and long, and I love sinking into a good book, so this was basically everything I love rolled together. This was my favorite read of the year.

Podcast Madness: West, Round 3

Recap: 40 podcasts, single-elimination brackets — 1 winner will emerge!

If you’re confused, read the first post here, then come back for the results.

West, Game 1: The Road Back to You vs. Sawbones

First up this time, The Road Back to You, episode 3: Interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber (an 8 on the enneagram). This was an interesting interview with a Colorado pastor on how her strengths and weaknesses work with her vocation. It’s interesting to hear about personality typing in this way that explores deep-seated fears and weaknesses as identifiers.

Thankfully, they discussed strengths as well as weaknesses, but it’s such an interesting approach. I’m not 100% sure what my enneagram type is, and while I find this podcast interesting, it’s a little frustrating to listen to the interviews while trying to simultaneously figure out what my type is. I’d probably enjoy learning about the other types more if I had that question settled. I suspect I may be a 5, but more research is needed.

Next up, Sawbones. I listened to the episode on Fluoride. The topic reminded me of a Parks and Recreation episode in season six:

Ok, now back to the podcast. This was a live episode, which is always interesting. Sydnee and Justin talk about how dentists figured out that fluoride is good for teeth, and how water is a great delivery system. Apparently too much flouride causes teeth to turn brown?! Gross, but interesting.

Their podcast style remains informative and entertaining, and I just now made the connection that Justin McElroy is related to the other podcasting McElroy brothers (of My Brother, My Brother and Me and other podcasts). Yes, it really took me that long. I enjoy this podcast though.

Winner: Sawbones

West, Game 2: The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps vs. Truth’s Table

In the History of Philosophy our host finally got to the famous Ockham’s metaphorical razor! I learned about Ockham’s simplification of entities and I appreciated that he wanted to boil things down from a complicated system to a smaller, more manageable system.

Honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve done heavy philosophical thinking/ lifting, so this podcast requires more attention and focus. I think it would be good to have more challenging educational materials in my roster, but I’ve still got a ways to go in this bracket challenge, so I’m simplifying (sorry, Nathanael). Ockham might approve of simplifying? Ok, this is nothing like what he was doing. He probably would frown on intellectual laziness.

The ladies of Truth’s Table talked about Malcolm X in the episode I listened to, and how his legacy impacted them personally. They also talked about how good he was at diagnosing cultural problems in America, and his towering position in black American culture.

As a white American, I don’t have the same kind of connection or knowledge about Malcolm X, but I like hearing this perspective and learn more about places I know little about.

Winner: Truth’s Table

I’m Back!

Hello, any readers still left. I’ve taken a bit of a break from my podcast posts, mostly because I left the notebook that contained my notes in North Carolina after my cousin’s wedding, and I didn’t have it in me to reconstruct my thoughts (and I didn’t really want to re-listen to the podcasts and try to remember what I thought) for this round.

My mother kept the notebook for me (thanks, Mom!) and now I have it back, so I’ll jump back into the podcast brackets soon. I do kind of miss the frenzied podcast-listening, and I’m looking forward to jumping back in.

After visiting my family a couple weeks ago, I also realized that I’m not the only one who likes to turn things into a bracket competition. One of my brothers asked another one of my brothers to rank his medical school prospects bracket-style. Yes, apparently my family defaults to brackets and competition when trying to decide between things. I’m ok with that.

On a completely different note, I’ve also been thinking a lot this week, as have many, about the nature of public discourse, protests, violence, and media coverage in the wake of the Charlottesville rally and counter-protests last week. It was surreal to see my town name turn into a negative hashtag and in international headlines. I don’t have a lot of coherent things to say, but the events of last week have been stirring around in my mind, making me reevaluate where I’m spending my time and energy.

It is so easy to reduce one another to the aspects we dislike, the political views we disdain, the feelings we abhor. I don’t want to be reductive, but I also don’t want to stay silent while people who look like me lash out at other people who look different, just because they look different. A human being is a human being, and I want to remember that before every interaction, especially online, where it’s so easy to forget that there’s a living, breathing, feeling person behind every comment.

Podcast Madness: South, Round 2.2

Recap: 40 podcasts, single-elimination brackets — 1 winner will emerge!

For the thesis, read the first post here, then come back for the results.

West, Game 3: Ungeniused v. Random Trek

In Ungeniused, Stephen and Myke discuss the deep archives of Wikipedia. In this episode, “Selfie-related Deaths,” they relate tales of ways selfies can go terribly, horribly wrong. Seriously, these deaths could have been avoided (mostly) with the application of common sense and attention to one’s surroundings. Also, just like they tell you in driver’s ed classes, you’re always going to lose when you go up against a train.

Up next, Random Trek, in which host Scott and a guest watch a randomly selected episode of Star Trek and discuss it. This is kind of a different/ fun way to podcast about Star Trek. I listened to episode 127: “Ship in a Bottle,” which is a fun holodeck episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It further cements the idea that the holodeck is dangerous and should be dismantled ASAP, but it’s a fun 45 minutes of watching the crew work their way out of the situation.

The hosts also have some wise words for Captain Picard regarding password security.

Winner: Random Trek

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West, Game 4: What Should I Read Next? v. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text

I listened to episode 68, “Plot Summaries are the WORST” of the What Should I Read Next? podcast. This podcast format has the host interview a guest about their reading habits, hears 3 books they love (and why) and 1 book they didn’t, and suggests a couple books they may enjoy based on their reading taste. It’s literary matchmaking!

This is a great idea, though in this case the guest’s literary tastes are very unlike my own (she enjoyed Stephen King and tear-jerker memoirs; I’ve never read Stephen King as I’m a little afraid I’d never be able to sleep again, though I hear he’s an excellent writer).

For Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, I listened to episode 2: Loneliness: The Vanishing Glass. Hearing about reading chapter 2 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher/ Sorcerer’s Stone looking for the theme of loneliness was interesting — it’s pervasive in this chapter and a great theme to tease out.

The hosts also discuss Dudley’s complaint that he “only” got 36 birthday presents, and they judged him less harshly for this than I.

I like this podcast, but I feel a little uncomfortable about mapping spiritual practices onto novels. That said, I appreciate their perspective and thoughtfulness and obvious love of the source material. It’s a fresh take on a beloved and oft-discussed series.

This was a close one, but I think I want to broaden my reading horizons….

Winner: What Should I Read Next?

Next time: East, Round 3!

Podcast Madness: South, Round 2.1

Recap: 40 podcasts, single-elimination brackets — 1 winner will emerge!

For the thesis, read the first post here, then come back for the results.

West, Game 1: Pod4Ham v. The West Wing Weekly

This was a close game.

Pod4Ham is a podcast taking a look at each track of the Hamilton soundtrack. A different panel discusses each track and gives their impressions and some background information. They talk about some of the influences and especially the book that inspired Lin Manuel Miranda to rap about Alexander Hamilton in the first place. Mostly it’s a reflection on what struck them in the songs.

The West Wing Weekly is, as the title suggests, a weekly tour through each episode of the tv series The West Wing. Confession: I already listen to this podcast. But I needed one more podcast to round out my bracket, and Lin Manuel Miranda was famously inspired by The West Wing, so it seemed a worthy opponent.

Like the show, this podcast is so. good. Go watch The West Wing  (it’s on Netflix) if you haven’t, and then listen to this behind-the-scenes + fan podcast. I’m going to have to give it a slight edge. That last basket went in right before the clock ran out. I wanted to try to work in a flentl joke for WWW listeners, but I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate that into the post. Sorry, guys.

Winner: The West Wing Weekly

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West, Game 2: The Bright Sessions v. The Moth

When I listened to the first episode of The Bright Sessions, it was before deciding to do a bracket, and I just downloaded the episode without any research. So I didn’t know it was a science fiction audio drama, which was funny, though quickly apparent. Since I’d already listened to episode 1, I listened to episode 2, in which a therapist records her sessions with young people with unusual abilities.

It’s an interesting series that uses its sci fi premise to explore humanity, as good sci fi does. Bonus, I know the composer. 🙂 (Evan, if you’re reading this, I like it so far!)

Second, The Moth. It’s another storytelling podcast, though with a focus on true stories, not fictional ones. Both are valuable, just different. I listened to the episode titled “Andrew Forsthoefel: Deluded in the Desert.”

This story was about Andrew’s walk across America to listen to people and their stories (this is starting to feel a little meta). On the way, he discovered he had a limit to himself and his capacity and desire to listen to and care for others. He’s a good storyteller with a good point about knowing our limits and how everyone needs community.

I enjoyed both of these, because I love stories, but only one can advance.

Winner: The Bright Sessions

Next time: The South, Round 2.2.